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Food fights

Healthcare | Protesters seek to punish the normally progressive Whole Foods CEO John Mackey for speaking out against Obamacare

President Barack Obama isn't the only chief executive suffering backlash for his views on healthcare. John Mackey, the co-founder and CEO of the famously progressive Whole Foods Market grocery chain, has angered his own customers by disagreeing with the president's plan. When Mackey wrote that nationalized healthcare isn't the answer to a ballooning problem, some angry customers suspected the worst: Mackey isn't for healthcare at all.

Customers organized protests outside Whole Foods stores in cities such as Washington, D.C.; New York; Berkley, Calif.; and Austin, Texas, where the chain is based. Protesters called Mackey "hypocritical" and "disingenuous." Mark Federici, a spokesman for the United Food and Commercial Workers union, went further: "He has to go."

The liberal ire against Mackey's self-proclaimed libertarian views is ironic: He holds plenty of positions hailed by progressives, and his own company offers an exceptionally generous healthcare plan to its employees.

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Still, many customers couldn't abide Mackey's Aug. 11 column in The Wall Street Journal, where the CEO of the multi-billion-dollar chain that specializes in organic foods and locally grown produce-a major draw for many customers-wrote that Congress should reverse its course on healthcare, and move toward "less government control and more individual empowerment."

He offered specific suggestions for a market-based approach to healthcare: give tax benefits to individuals purchasing insurance apart from an employer, allow insurance companies to compete across state lines, promote health savings accounts, and enact malpractice reform to drive down costs.

Mackey also bucked a popular notion, writing that healthcare isn't "an intrinsic right" guaranteed by the Constitution. Neither is food and shelter, he added: "Health care is a service that we all need, but just like food and shelter it is best provided through voluntary and mutually beneficial market exchanges."

That was more than some Whole Foods shoppers could take: Aside from the protests, Twitter campaigns urged fellow customers to abandon the chain, and more than 33,000 people signed up for a Facebook group called "Boycott Whole Foods." The page's opening salvo says that Mackey suggested: "health care is a commodity that only the rich, like him, deserve."

The page didn't mention Whole Foods' healthcare plan for plenty of workers who are likely far from rich. According to its website, the company covers 100 percent of healthcare premiums for all full-time workers after roughly three months of service. The company also provides dental plans, vision plans, and healthcare reimbursement accounts for workers and their dependents. And progressives have applauded the company's offering benefits to same-sex partners of employees.

Still, those stats haven't placated some protesters angry with Mackey. And neither have assurances from Mackey and Whole Foods spokesmen that the CEO was expressing a personal opinion in the column.

But Mackey's personal opinion has endeared a new set of supporters-conservatives who agree with his take on healthcare and like his willingness to speak his mind. The National Tea Party Coalition-a group promoting fiscal conservatism-encouraged its supporters to shop at Whole Foods and organized shopping events in Dallas and St. Louis. They called them "buycotts."

Jamie Dean
Jamie Dean

Jamie lives and works in North Carolina, where she covers the political beat and other topics as national editor for WORLD Magazine. Follow Jamie on Twitter @deanworldmag.


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